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March 25, 2008

Louisville's bench is dangerously deep

MORE: Rivals.com NCAA Tourney Central | Play Second Chance Tourney Pick'em

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. If Louisville were any deeper, it would be Sartre.

Seriously, the Cardinals run deep. Through two NCAA Tournament games, Rick Pitino's bench is outscoring the opponent's bench 67-25. It's an almost-unfair advantage when a coach can look down and know he has 30 or so points on the pine.

"They're extremely talented across the board," Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel said about the third-seeded Cardinals the day before they crushed his sixth-seeded Sooners 78-48 in the second round. "They have a good number of big bodies, big, athletic bodies they can throw at you, and with the style in which they play constant pressure, mixing up their presses I think that's probably good their team is able to play that many guys.

"But they're good. I think that some of those guys got some really valuable time with (David) Padgett being out early and some of those other guys I think (Juan) Palacios was out early so some of those guys got some valuable minutes, which has helped them."

Indeed, Louisville which meets No. 2 seed Tennessee in an East Regional semifinal Thursday in Charlotte was without both Padgett (6 feet 11, 245 pounds) and Palacios (6-8, 250) for a stretch of seven games in November and December. Padgett, a senior, suffered a broken right kneecap against Jackson State on Nov. 18 and didn't return until New Year's Day. Palacios, another senior, suffered a torn MCL in his right knee on the second day of practice and didn't return until Dec. 22 against New Mexico State.

The Cardinals went only 4-3 during the stretch, but all three losses were to teams bound for the postseason NCAA Tournament teams BYU and Purdue and NIT team Dayton. Louisville also beat an NCAA team, UNLV, and that came on the road by a score of 68-48.

Sophomore forwards Earl Clark (6-9, 220) and Derrick Caracter (6-8, 265) got some starts during the stretch while Padgett and Palacios were injured. So did senior center Terrance Farley (6-10, 225). Caracter had 24 points and 11 rebounds against BYU and 18 points and eight rebounds against Marshall. Clark became a de facto go-to guy, and he put up 16 points and 13 rebounds against UNLV and 15 points and 12 rebounds against Dayton.

Clark continued as a starter for most of the season, notching 22 starts. But toward the end of the season and in the NCAA Tournament, Pitino has decided to bring him off the bench and start Palacios.

"When you look at Louisville, when you can bring a guy like Earl Clark off the bench Earl Clark is a pro," Capel said. "When you can bring a guy like that off the bench, that speaks for the talent you have in your program."

Clark has led the Cardinals in scoring in each of their NCAA Tournament games. He had 15 points against Boise State and 14 against Oklahoma.

A quick rundown of the top options off Louisville's bench:
F Earl Clark, Soph., 10.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg: Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel believes he'll play in the NBA.
F Derrick Caracter, Soph., 8.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg: The No. 25 overall prospect in the class of 2006 by Rivals.com is shooting 80 percent (12 of 15) over the past three games.
G Edgar Sosa, Soph., 7.6 ppg: Everyone remembers his 31-point game against Texas A&M in last year's NCAA Tournament.
G Preston Knowles, Fr., 2.4 ppg: The 6-foot Knowles had five points against Oklahoma, including a dunk along the baseline in traffic that had everyone out of their seats.
Pitino's pressing style does mean he's going to use his depth. The Cardinals really haven't been pushed so far, either, taking down the Broncos 79-61, then whipping the Sooners.

Part of what has made this team so successful since Padgett returned has been its chemistry. From the outside, no one seems to be whining about minutes. Louisville has won 13 of its past 16 games, with contributions from up and down the roster.

"Anybody can start, anybody is capable of starting," said forward Terrence Williams, one of two players to start every game this season for Pitino along with guard Jerry Smith. "Earl started a lot this year, so he's really a starter. Everybody is pretty much a starter.

"It's just we don't fall into the 'who starts' and 'who doesn't start' type of attitude. Everybody just comes out and plays. And that's indicative of our bench every night."

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

MORE: Rivals.com NCAA Tourney Central | Play Second Chance Tourney Pick'em

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